In this memoir of his time under threat of the Ayatollah Khomeini's sentence of death against him beginning in 1989, Salmon Rushdie details the events of his life, lets us see how his books come to life, and ruminates on religion. He was surprised by the fatwa, thinking that The Satanic Verses was a less political book than others he had written, and of course had no idea of the intensity and length of this hateful threat toward him.
Joseph Anton is the name he chose when told by his British police protectors he must use a different name, Joseph for Conrad, Anton for Checkov. He tells this intimate tale in the third person, as if all this happened to Joseph, rather than Salmon Rushdie. Most striking to me is the contrast between the flawed human (ambitious, awfully eager to be loved, having problematic dealings with women, vindictive) with a brilliant thinker who withstood a true horror visited upon him with courage and intelligence.
One of the most surprising aspects of the story is the apparent lack of support in Britain for him, both of Margaret Thatcher's government, the members of parliament who carped about the cost of his protection, and public figures who thought he "brought this on himself." He was painted as an unpleasant figure, who did not deserve support, rather than the embodiment of the loss of freedom of speech. This required him and others to mount a campaign to change public perception. Multiple times he writes with appreciation of the "lads" who lived with him and protected him, and he writes feelingly of the group of friends he visited who never slipped and made revelations about his life that would put him at risk.
Given his circumstances, it's not surprising his journal was truly complete, but he chooses to share descriptions of many social events with folks like Paul Auster, Martin Amis, Nigella Lawson, his difficulties with Marianne Wiggins (his wife at the time of the fatwa), his love affair years earlier with Robyn Davidson and his time in Australia, surprisingly detailed stories of his son, well, you get the idea. You inevitably wonder how some of the stories would be told by the other parties involved. All this was interspersed with passages like this one, a letter addressed to Religion:
Can I raise the question of first principles?
Because, strangely, or not so strangely, the religious and nonreligious
can't agree on what these are. To the reasonable Greek man approaching
the question of truth, first principles were starting points (arche) and we
perceived them because we possessed awareness/consciousness (nous). By
the use of pure reason, and relying on our sensory perception of the world,
Descartes and Spinoza believed that we could arrive at a description of truth
that we recognized as true. Religious thinkers, on the other hand —
Aquinas, Ibn Rushd — maintained that reason existed outside human
consciousness, that it hung out there in space like the northern lights or the
asteroid belt, waiting to be discovered. Once discovered, it was fixed
and immutable, because it was preexisting, see, it didn't rely on us to exist,
it just was. This idea of disembodied reason, absolute reason, is a
little hard to swallow, especially when you, Religion, join it to the idea of
revelation. Because then thinking is over, isn't it? Everything
that needs to be thought has been revealed and we're stuck with that,
eternally, absolutely, without hope of appeal. God, one might well cry,
help us. I'm with the other team, which believes that unless first principles
of this type can be challenged by first principles of the other type — by
finding new starting points, applying our consciousness and sensory awareness
of what-is to those starting points, and so coming up with new conclusions —
we're done for, our brains will rot, and men in turbans and long beards (or men
in frocks pretending to be celibate while molesting young boys) will inherit
the earth. However, and this may confuse you, in cultural matters, I am not a relativist and I do believe in universals.
Human rights, for example, human freedoms, human nature and what it wants and deserves.
Also of interest is the story of his father, a nonbeliever who was a scholar of Islam, a man who renamed himself Rushdie, in honor of the twelfth-century Spanish-Arab philosopher (known as Averroes in the West), a translator and commentator of Aristotle who was at the forefront of the rationalist argument against Islamic literalism of his time.